Prayers and Buddhism

A few years ago we spent a couple of weeks roaming around Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and the land surrounding them.  A few days ago we returned from a trip where we spent several days each in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai with brief stops elsewhere in Thailand, Vietnam and Okinawa.  Among other things, it means that we have visited many Buddhist temples filled with persons offering their prayers.
From the little I know about it, the Buddha’s teachings can be summarized in four truths and eight ways that have a common thread.  Life is tragic because humans desire too much and are too easily driven by their passions.  The way to happiness is a life in which meditation and contemplation lead toward the elimination of desire.  In the meantime, life is to be lived in moderation – not too little, not too much, and without expectation.  The goal is to seek release from the tragic cycle of life and rebirth by achieving an ultimate state of enlightenment in which one’s final death leads to unbeing in oneness with whatever oneness is.
That’s a pretty crude summary and no doubt any observant Buddhist would take exception to it, but I’m more interested in what I observed and was told about Buddhist prayer as offered by ordinary people.  It begins with the observation that the Buddha’s disinterest in the idea of God per se has allowed a multitude of gods form every culture where Buddhism took root to have their place, often a very important place, in the worship life of the community.  The second observation is that every time I asked someone to describe the nature of the prayers being offered I got the same answer.  We, or they, are praying for wealth, good luck, healing, happiness, abundance, romance, promotions, and especially desired material possessions, a new motor scooter perhaps.  Honoring Buddha while propitiating ancestors and the local gods might bring hoped for answers to one’s prayers.  
It seemed to me that there were some real conflicts between the basics of Buddhist teaching and the heartfelt prayers being offered.  One of the most colorful examples of that was an enthusiastic young Communist Party member who explained to us his understanding of the Buddha’s core teaching and then went through an elaborate ritual of prayer that he hoped would make him a very rich millionaire.  Marx and Buddha may have had little in common, but they both had to wonder what this kid was thinking.
I wonder, though, how different that is from the usual prayers offered up by many Christians?  We are taught, I hope, that prayer is a form of communion with God, a holy conversation that leads us a little farther toward perfection as followers of Jesus Christ.  But as a practical matter, prayer seems more often to be a verbalized to-do list for God that, if God would be so kind as to answer according to our desires, life would be so much more pleasant.
I suspect that the Buddha would very much like the prayer we were all taught: the prayer in which we seek to honor and keep holy God’s name, be agents of God’s will on earth, receive from God whatever spiritual and material nourishment is needed for the day’s work, receive forgiveness as we offer forgiveness, and to be delivered from the evils of this world.  I wonder what he would think of the prayers we actually offer.  At least we don’t have the sort of synchronistic religion that sets up local gods along side the Lord God Almighty, right?

Moses, Miriam and Drowning

Morning Prayer on Thursday is a bit of a problem for me, a very small bit to be sure, but it’s always there.  One of the Thursday canticles is “The Song of Moses,” also called “The Song of Miriam.”  I find it impossible to incorporate into my morning conversation with God.
The song in canticle form consists of selected verses from Exodus 15 including 1-6, 11-13 and 17-18.  Together they sing praises to God for delivering the people of Israel from the pursuing Egyptians at the Red Sea.  The song cheers the sight of Pharaoh’s army being hurled into the sea, drowned in the Red Sea, overwhelmed by the fathomless deep, sunk like stones, swallowed up, and all because of God’s love.  Most others seem to be able to read the canticle as a celebration of deliverance from evil, metaphorically represented by Pharaoh’s army, and it doesn’t trouble them.  
Perhaps so, but I am more taken by the rabbinic story told in some Passover Haggadahs.  An angels standing next to God urges him to celebrate the great victory of deliverance as the sea washes over the army.  God hushes him saying: “Be quiet, my children are dying.”  I think I’ll take my stand with the rabbi’s story of God on his one.  I just cannot “sing” this canticle with any sense other than profound sadness and disappointment in the folly of humankind.  Don’t get me wrong, I can understand Moses and Miriam cheering and singing.  They had just escaped by the slimmest of margins, and there would be no further threat from the Egyptians.  Had I been there, I would have joined in the singing.
But I am not there.  I am here, some 3,300 years later (give or take), and from that distance I can both be grateful for Israel’s deliverance and horrified at the fate of their oppressors.  Moreover, it symbolizes for me the unending centuries of class, clan and racial feuding that seem to have taken us nowhere, in spite of the Incarnation we now celebrate.  I’m reminded of a verse written by Edmund Sears in the mid 19th century.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; 

Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

And warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;

O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!

It’s the third verse of the popular Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear.”
And so on Thursday, I tend to skip by that canticle, but not without remembering why.  I started this brief walk through a week of Morning Prayer last Thursday.  This brings me full circle.  We shall see what happens next.

Be Not Afraid

“Be not afraid.”  That’s the angels’ message.  Be not afraid when God comes near.  Be not afraid of the conditions you must endure.  Be not afraid of the task that is before you.  Be not afraid for God is with you.  Be not afraid is never a promise that tough times, danger or deadly confrontation with enemies can be avoided.  Be not afraid is always a promise that God has something in mind for the welfare of the world.  Be not afraid is encouragement not to fall victim to manipulating intimidation.  
How different that is from the message often heard in daily life, “be afraid, be very afraid.”  Be afraid of the boss, of life, of others who are different, of security, of almost anything.  The warning to be afraid is often used as an intentional tool of intimidation in order to manipulate the behavior of another.  Fearful people manipulating fear in others can be a powerful motivator, but seldom for good in any form. 
In the tradition of the Episcopal Church, Tuesday’s morning meditation focuses in part on fear, as we pray to God that we recognize that in serving God we will experience perfect freedom, and that “…we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries…”  Think about what it would be like to live without ever being intimidated through the intentional manipulation of fear by some other person.  How freeing would that be?  Our prayer this morning is exactly that.  By fully accepting who we are as beloved children of God we have no need to be intimidated by anyone, nor do we need to engage in the cruel act of intimidation. 
If on Sunday we prayed for an entire week lived in God’s favor, this is one of the ways to  experience that. 

Monday’s Child Is Fair Of Face. Phooey, Don’t Bug Me, It’s Monday

Mother Goose says that Monday’s child is fair of face, which is so unlike the popular cartoon of Monday as the harbinger of another overbearing work week, and oh so hard to endure after a weekend of rest and delight.   Arrrgh, it’s Monday!
Whatever happened to the idea we considered just yesterday that the week ahead might be lived in God’s favor.  It didn’t take long to evaporate did it?  I wonder if that’s why the preferred Monday morning canticle has us singing along with Isaiah that we will draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation, that we will give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name, that we will sing the praises of the Lord and make his deeds known among the people (Isa 12.2-6). 
To be honest, anyone who expects me to sing praises of any kind, or even be civil, before I’ve had my coffee is expecting too much.  It’s why I spend my first hour or so in meditative prayer with God.  He’s the only one who can tolerate me in the morning.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that our Mondays, back in the routine of those we work with on a daily basis, is precisely the right time to recall our desire to live in God’s favor, and to do so by drawing water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation in the very place and among the very people of our ordinary daily lives.  That does not mean heavy handed proselytizing at the water cooler.  It simply means to let the love of God that washed over us in our worship yesterday flow through us into the lives of those we work with today simply in the way we treat them.  Nothing needs to be said.  In fact, words frequently create obstacles all but impossible to overcome.  Just let it be.  H’mm, that sure sounds familiar.   Where have I heard that before?
When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, 
speaking words of wisdom, let it be. 
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, 
speaking words of wisdom, let it be. 
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. 
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. 
Have a happy and blessed Monday 

Bathed in God’s Blessings

A portion of the prayers for Sunday ask God that we might receive such a blessing through our worship that the week ahead might be spent in God’s favor.  That raises some interesting questions.  If such a wonderful blessing is to be received through worship, what is the nature of that worship?  For that matter, what exactly is worship?  Common wisdom in Protestant thinking heavily influenced by Calvin holds that nothing we have done, are doing, or ever will do can be ‘good’ in God’s sight, so is it even possible to spend a week in God’s favor?  What would such a week be like?  How would it be different from other weeks you and I have experienced?  
For me, worship means to participate with God in the love of God that can surround and fill us.  The Sunday rituals of the Episcopal Church are holy vessels that can carry me, in the company of others, into communion with God in Christ Jesus leading to the intimacy of sharing with Christ in the Holy Communion of the bread and wine in which he is truly present.  I said can, not will, because I’m not always fully and intentionally present to all that God offers through worship.  I let little inconveniences and minor distractions get in the way.  Fortunately, God is fully present even when I am not, and that makes a difference.  But there remains one more obstacle to worship.  The moment our rituals cease to be holy vessels carrying us into communion with God, the moment that they become the object of worship, we have fallen into idolatry, and that can sometimes be an easy thing to do.  
But moving on; when Peter and the other disciples wondered about the obvious impossibility of living up to God’s standards, Jesus reminded them that through God all things were possible.  Bathed in God’s blessings, and contrary to popular Calvinism, I believe it is entirely possible to act in such a way as to spend time in God’s favor, and that it is engagement in worship through which such bathing may come.  I believe that I have been blessed to spend parts of some weeks in God’s favor: sometimes only a few moments, occasionally an hour or two.  I have yet to discover what it would be like to spend an entire week in God’s favor.  If I ever do I imagine that I will be so transformed that not a soul will recognize me.  Indeed, I may not recognize myself, and that’s a bit scary.  Our various flaws, insecurities, delusions and eccentricities give us more than a little of our character and identity.  Living an entire week in the fulness of God’s love by loving every single other creature as Christ has loved them would do some serious damage to my customary and recognizable behavior.  Think about it.  May you be bathed in God’s blessings this week and experience what it is to spend time in God’s favor.

Always Walking in God’s Sight

A collect normally used for the Morning Office on Thursdays asks God to help us remember that we are always walking in God’s sight.  I wonder what that would be like, to remember, never forget, be continually mindful that we are always walking in God’s sight?  Now and then I hear someone say that Jesus is their constant companion and, frankly, I don’t believe it.  My guess is that most of us, even those of us who are diligent about daily meditation and prayer, seldom give God a second thought as we go about our daily business.  
I imagine that constant remembrance that we are always walking in God’s sight could have dramatically different effects on different people depending, in part, on what they have been taught and come to believe about God.  More than a few Christians have been raised with a constant reminder that they are living on the dangerous edge of hell, ready to be toppled in by a wrathful God whose (abounding and steadfast) love for them can be accessed only through a confession of faith in Jesus Christ and subsequent amendment of life.  In counseling with some of them I’ve become aware of how scared they are of God and how frightening it is for them to think that they are always in God’s sight.  It conjures up images of certain doom no matter how often they hear the good news of Christ’s redeeming love. 
For others, the idea of always walking in God’s sight is an oxymoron since their understanding of God has him somewhere up there sitting on his throne in another world and not paying all that much attention to us.  Of course, all that changes in moments of desperate need.  Then it’s not so much a case of wanting to be in God’s sight so much as it is wanting God to be in their sights.  None of that belies  prayers offered up on a regular basis to lesser deities for boons such as a convenient parking spot, well sunk putt, or a touchdown for one’s favorite team.  
But let’s set all that aside and assume a reasonably healthy relationship with God.  What then would it mean to remember that we are always walking in God’s sigh?  How might that affect my behavior and yours?  Perhaps I would be more patient, less rude, more willing to take a risk on behalf of another’s need, more observant of and thankful for the many blessings that flow with abundance into my world.  Maybe I would not be so anxious about the vagaries of life, inconsequential deadlines or the discomfort of unimportant things out of place.  Perhaps I would become more confident of God’s patience with my many flaws and shortcomings, and his capacity to love me in spite of them.  Maybe I would become less egocentric and more willing to take an appropriate place in the company of all human beings, especially those who can so easily bug me and are always somewhere in my consciousness.  What would it be like for you?
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in or sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

The Curmudgeon Considers Prayer

How often do we implore God to give us that which has already been given, and in abundance? I’m struck by that question each morning when I come to a little responsive prayer in our Daily Office that seems to ask of God what is already ours, and I wonder if God, sounding a lot like Jackie Mason, doesn’t’ shrug his shoulders in near disbelief and say, “Alright, already, I gave it to you! Pick it up and use it dummy! What’s your problem?”

Grant us your salvation: Haven’t we already got that pretty well established in Christ?

Clothe your ministers with righteousness: The clothes are in the closet, put them on!

Give peace in all the world: Everything needed for peace is ours already, it’s just that we like war better.

Guide us in the way of justice and truth: And what would that guidance look like if not the gospels and prophets?

Let your way be known on earth: Is that the same thing as saying something like, “Lord, I’ll just sit here in my study while you go out and do some work spreading the news about you. Let me know when you’re done.”

Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten: “There are some needy people our community God, or at least so I’ve heard. Someone really ought to remember to do something about that I hope you will not let them forget to do it.”

Nor let the hope of the poor be taken away: I’m astounded that we actually pray this while engaging in deliberate political and economic policies that often trample the hope of the poor while, at the very same time, we extol how anyone can make it in America if they just try hard enough.

Create in us clean hearts, O God: OK, there is one thing God has not yet done.